John's real-time WW1 blog: Mum and dad hold hands with their only son as he dies in hospital after being gassed

John Dilley
John Dilley

April 16, 1918...

Imagine this. Your son, who barely needs to shave, joins the army and is shipped off to the trenches of Flanders. You pray each night he will be kept safe and you dare to hope when he comes through the Battle of the Somme and other heavy fighting unscathed.

The headline covering Lance Corporal Peach's death

The headline covering Lance Corporal Peach's death

But then you learn he has become victim, not of the bomb or the bullet but that most insidious new Great War weapon – gas.

Your heart flutters and you dare to believe he will recover as you are allowed to travel to a hospital in Sussex to sit by his bedside and comfort him while he is treated.

Then – ironically on the day of your wedding anniversary – your son, your only son, while you hold his hands, succumbs to the evil poison that has invaded his lungs.

This heart-wrenching and intimate story is told in the April 16, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser with an account of the ‘impressive and touching’ funeral of Second-Lieutenant Harry Kirkham.

The funeral of Second Lieutenant Harry Kirkham

The funeral of Second Lieutenant Harry Kirkham

It is unusual for any of the hundreds of casualties from Market Harborough and the surrounding villages to be buried at home – most, if their bodies had not been vaporised by a German shell, were interred in a makeshift cemetery near the battlefield.

Kirkham, 20, of East Farndon was buried with full military honours at Market Harborough Cemetery following a service at the town’s Catholic Church.

The service was led by Dean Kavanagh, who said: “Here lies one more young and noble victim of this deplorable war – cut down like so many others in the flower of youth. Cut down defending his King, country and his people, despising death to uphold justice against injustice, humanity against barbarity.

“He did not actually fall on the battlefield but much worse, his agony was prolonged by that foul unnatural instrument of warfare introduced by the brutal Hun – that poisonous gas which has been fatal to so many.

“His was a most gentle nature. But when gentle natures are roused they become the fiercest and his soul was fired with indignation by the outrages, injustices and brutal tyranny of the Hun. His soul will have its reward.”

In complete contrast to the long-drawn demise of Private Kirkham is the death of Lance Corporal T Peach of Scotland Road, Little Bowden, who was killed instantaneously by a bullet to the head from a German sniper’s rifle.

Peach, who was 36, had been in the Army for two years but had ‘only been in France a few weeks’ when his battalion ‘suffered very heavily in recent fighting’.

Peach was well known in Market Harborough as a representative of the Prudential Assurance Company and a prominent member of the town’s Wesleyan Church where ‘he frequently acted as an organist’.

- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.

- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.

- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.